Innovations - The 10 Best Deckbuilders Of All-Time: Lauer And Fujita
It's kind of wild to think about it sometimes but there was once a day before the internet. That day wasn't even that long ago. While the internet has existed for decades at this point its widespread adoption by the mainstream wasn't until a few years after Magic had already gotten "big." Back then decklists were not a common commodity and information spread slowly. We didn't have the language to even describe the concepts that we did not know we did not know. It was a much unexplored wilderness to say the least.
Being a strong deckbuilder used to be a much more important ingredient for a successful Magic player. Years ago the majority of opponents you would face in tournament play didn't even have what people today would consider "real decks." Now there is more information than you could possibly read available to you all the time online. In fact it is easy to take for granted sometimes that the technology we have for building decks and understanding how Magic strategies work did not always exist.
I sometimes hear new deckbuilders in this modern era lament that every archetype has already been invented and how they wished they had played back before people had discovered the basic archetypes. To thoughts such as these my reply is always "Not everything has been invented yet... you just don't know about the rest of it since no one has invented it yet."
Yes there was a time before card advantage before tempo before modern combo decks and before "beatdown." Right now we are living in the time that is before what we will invent tomorrow. Cards change players change metagames change and deckbuilding changes. Deckbuilding is where theory meets the road so to speak in Magic. Where the art of Magic and the science collide. It is a subject that is as rich as it is fascinating.
In the course of researching my next book on this exact subject I surveyed dozens of the game's greatest deckbuilders as well as some experts who have had firsthand experience with many of them. This panel included:
Randy Buehler Jon Finkel Michael Flores Mark Herberholz Zac Hill Scott Johns Frank Karsten Darwin Kastle Brian Kibler Ted Knutson Erik Lauer Osyp Lebedowicz Mike Long Billy Moreno Gabriel Nassif Matt Place Ben Rubin Steve Sadin Tomoharu Saito Brian Schneider Jay Schneider Luis Scott-Vargas Adrian Sullivan Patrick Sullivan Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa Gabe Walls Guillaume Wafo-Tapa Zvi Mowshowitz and more.
Each panel member was instructed to:
"Please select the ten greatest deckbuilders of all-time by whatever metrics you consider appropriate. Please do not include yourself or myself if either of us would have made your ballot."
The votes have been compiled to form a list of the ten best deckbuilders of all-time which we have been discussing all this week. Monday we covered Mark Herberholz and Michael Flores tied for ninth. Tuesday we saw Rob Dougherty (8th) and Alan Comer (7th). Wednesday we had Brian Kibler (6th) and Tomoharu Saito (5th). Articles reviewing each of these players can be found in those links though I would like to include a couple quotes about Saito that were accidentally omitted from yesterday's article.
If you want an incredibly well-tuned control deck well don't look to Saito. If you want the best beatdown deck in the room he is definitely your man. All his decks are meticulously tested and all have the little touches that you know come as a result of untold hours of testing. The Perish/Nature's Ruin split (to get around Meddling Mage/Cabal Therapy) in his U/B Merfolk deck the Terastodon/Oblivion Ring synergy in his Hypergenesis deck (a rare departure from beatdown) and the back to back wins with Zoo in 09 are all good examples. ...Saito always had one of the best decks at every tournament even if they weren't particularly flashy. -Luis Scott-Vargas
Maybe it's more about deck tweaking than deckbuilding but I've been amazed at this ability of Tomoharu to always come up with the perfectly tuned list. Time and again after a tournament I would think "I shouldn't have played this card ... I should have played that one ..." Rarely would I have played the exact same 75 if I could change things. But when I looked at Tomoharu's decklists they always looked perfect for the event down to the last card. -Guillaume Wafo-Tapa
Today we have the pleasure of reviewing highlights from two more of the greats. As we examine some of the best decks they ever built we would do well to try to put ourselves in their shoes. What must they have been thinking? Why would they do these things? When we better understand the thought process that went into successful decks built by the game's best we will have more tools at our disposal for when we try our hand at the craft.
The first name on our list is particularly near and dear to me a true inspiration.
4th. Erik Lauer
He never felt restricted by what other players were playing and made the game his own personal playground. Advanced game knowledge just by being himself by doing what he loved to do—seeing potential in places others don't think to look. Found so many compelling strategies combinations... really opened my eyes to how much opportunity there is to play in this world and to how many good ideas get overlooked. Easily the best I worked with; grateful to have known him. -Brian Schneider
While the voting that took place did not involve ranking the deckbuilders in order Lauer received the most written-in notes stating that the panel member considered him the best of all-time. While Lauer was basically universally selected by the panel members from medium to long ago some of the newer members might not be as familiar with his work. This is due to most of it taking place before the internet kept good records of such things or the years and years of work he has done behind the closed doors of Wizards of the Coast R&D.
Erik Lauer has contributed such an overwhelming amount it is tricky to figure out where to begin. One of the ways he is most famous is as a member of Team CMU where I had the honor to work alongside of him as well as Mike Turian Randy Buehler Aaron Forsythe Brian Schneider Andrew Cuneo and more. We would sit around at the "O" and discuss ideas laugh and have the sorts of conversations that help you realize why you are smarter as a result of them. Erik would say he benefited from the company he kept but there is no question we were all much better for it.
Lauer is responsible for so many deckbuilding techniques that we take for granted today that we won't possibly be able to do justice to his work with just this snapshot. However an effort must be made so let's start with Lauer's greatest love Necropotence.
Lauerpotence by Randy Buehler; 1st Pro Tour–Chicago 1997 Extended
This is the list that Randy Buehler won his first Pro Tour with helping catapult him to the limelight. Long weekends of tournament play can be very challenging for Lauer who has always suffered from chronic fatigue among other health ailments. As a result much of his best work took trophies in the hands of others (often Randy). Still Lauer was always a team player and seeing the success his ideas brought his friends was a constant source of satisfaction.
As for Necropotence itself this was hardly Lauer's first Necrodeck nor would it be his last. Lauer loved (and loves) Necropotence like I love Jace the Mind Sculptor. He was at the cutting edge of Necrodecks always pushing more and more of them long before most people realized just how good the card was. A funny thing about Necro; even after people finally accepted that it really was so amazing it seems everyone would forget after a rotation or a new format was announced. Necropotence was even reprinted and with the support looking miserable in most people's eyes almost no one touched it. No matter the format no matter the rotation when Necropotence was legal Lauer was always working on Necrodecks. He would make other decks as well no question but we could always tell where his heart was.
There was a very proud moment for me back in Regionals 1997. It was the moment I won Lauer's respect. I didn't really know Erik at the time and was just some punk 16-year old kid but I showed up with a Necrodeck in an era when Fireblast had just been printed Winter Orb was popular and Black was widely regarded as unplayable. I was playing Black Knights Icequakes Stupors Serrated Arrows Disks Drain Life and other extensively mediocre cards but they were the best the format offered a format where not even Lauer dared play a Necro deck. He and I squared off in a later round Lauer armed with a U/W Control deck. I managed to defeat him as his strategy was very weak against Necro which had seemed so unplayable. I still remember him smiling telling me that my deck was his favorite and that he was impressed.
I did not realize it at the time but much of what my decks were based on was from discussions with Eric Taylor. Eric had studied Lauer's work extensively and shared the information with me. I must have looked pretty silly explaining to Lauer some of the choices made in my Necrodeck which were really just choices he had pioneered. Still Lauer just smiled and nodded.
What makes this list Lauerpotence? Probably just the fact that it won the most money. While Randy and Lauer were not the only ones to bring Necrodecks to Pro Tour Chicago most players stuck to Mono-Black. With no Dark Ritual no Hypnotic Specter and having to contend with Winter Orbs Land Taxes and more it was a hostile time to say the least. Disenchants helped fight this hate and the combination of Firestorm and Necropotence was a major breakthrough. Even if you didn't have a Firestorm you could Necro especially hard and find one or a Demonic Consultation then discard as many extra cards as you needed to Firestorm rather than have to discard for hand size. Take a moment to consider the brilliance of that interaction. For every life you pay you get a card (no additional mana) and for every card you discard you get to add a target and deal another damage to each one (no additional mana). You even get selection since you could Necro for twelve and keep the seven best! When you can pay twelve life to deal five damage to four different creatures and your opponent and draw twelve cards (then discard five) it is no wonder that Randy absolutely demolished that Pro Tour.
There were not a lot of good options for life gain in those days so Drain Life was basically as good as it gets. Without Dark Ritual how could we make Drain Life big enough to impress? Lake of the Dead! With no Wasteland yet Lauer found a source of renewable Dark Rituals that most had overlooked. Yes you lose a land but gaining three extra life means being able to draw three extra cards (easily replacing the lost Swamp).
With regards to Demonic Consultation Lauer was an early and vocal advocate of using four. Today it might be easy to imagine playing four copies of such a card but this was not always so. The fear of killing yourself outright from Consultation gave people an unnatural aversion to the card. After all they wouldn't really want to Consult three times in the same game would they?
Lauer's theory was that you either have a Necropotence or you don't. If you don't there is nothing you want more and Consult was by far the best way to find one. If you do then you still might want a Consult to find a Dark Ritual to cast it earlier a Drain Life to draw more cards or a solution to some problem on the board. Even if you really don't need anything then you can just discard the Consultation by paying one life to draw one extra card. If you really don't need anything than you have no problems right?
Whenever a new kind of card is printed that is very powerful but doesn't stack well always remember the lesson of Necropotence and Consultation. At first people didn't play four Necros (since the second one doesn't really do anything). Then they only played three Consultations. Even today we see this happen time and time again. Even as recently as Pro Tour Paris this year we saw players playing fewer than four Stoneforge Mystics in their Stoneforge Mystic deck (since they didn't want to run out of Equipment to find).
Lauer's Infernalator Ice Age/Alliances deck was among my favorite of his Necrodecks. While Dark Ritual Necropotence Demonic Consultation Knight of Stromgald and Contagion were no surprise filling out the rest of a Necrodeck in Block was no easy task. Lauer's solution? He used Legions of Lim-Dul Lim-Dul's Cohorts and the slightly less embarrassing Abyssal Specter. What was the common theme? They were all 2/3. The format's premier removal spell was Pyroclasm so Lauer made sure none of his creatures besides his Knights would die to it (which could dodge Swords to Plowshares themselves). Icequake gave him disruption to fight the popular Kjeldoran Outposts and Thawing Glaciers. Infernal Darkness provided very powerful disruption to make up for his lack of discard. Finally Lake of the Dead fueled massive Soul Burns to keep Necro and Darkness going.
The Mad Genius of Magic. Most major archetypes and technology innovations from tapping out with big blue fatties to running four copies of Demonic Consultation in Necropotence are ultimately attributable to Lauer. Quite simply the most innovative and impressive idea man in the history of Magic; currently breaking cards before we see them as a Magic Developer. -Michael Flores
Lauer has probably built more of the best decks than anyone else in the game's history if only because of working in R&D for so long; after all he does get a year or more head start. Of course I am eternally grateful for the work Lauer is doing there. We will never know just how many Caw-Blades have been cut off before they had a chance to rear their ugly head. I know it is kind of a funny time to mention this given the recent Caw-Blade Saga. Still there are hundreds of thousands millions of us. There are just a handful of them. That they are able to do such a good job of making sure the metagame doesn't get too out of hand is truly remarkable.
By the way if you think of Caw-Blade as the hero... Sword of Feast and Famine is printed leading to Caw-Blade freeing us from the Valakut menace aka A New Hope. Batterskull is printed leading to the bans aka the Empire Strikes Back. Jace and Mystic are banned so Valakut is supposed to take over again but Caw-Blade shows up to save the day aka Return of the Jedi.
Another concept that Erik helped pioneer was the idea of Draw-Go. Andrew Cuneo was the original creator of the Draw-Go archetype but it was Erik Lauer who took it to the extreme. Whereas Cuneo had a few Mahamoti Djinns Lauer kept pushing until the deck was down to just a single creature. Here is the most famous of Lauer's Draw-Go decks:
Draw-Go by Erik Lauer; World Championships 1998
So named because all you did was draw then say go this deck didn't just change the way we build decks; it changed the way Wizards makes counterspells. You want to know why counterspells are rarely as good as they used to be? Because of this deck. People don't mind their creatures getting Doom Bladed but they hate having them countered more than just about anything. This deck helps demonstrate the problem with letting blue have too many playable counterspells. Cancel Negate Mana Leak Deprive? Sure they are all fine cards but they sure don't make 'em like they used to. This deck broke an element of the game and is why we can't have nice things.
Breaking down Draw-Go is pretty easy. You counter everything they do. For such an influential deck there really isn't a lot of strategy to it. Probably my favorite part is that the counterspells have actually been selected in a mana curve which was a revolutionary idea from a control deck's perspective. Additionally the use of 26 land and 4 Whisper of the Muse helped ensure that you could keep hitting your land drops when other people would try to save up threats and not play all their spells out into your counters.
Erik Lauer: Like Zvi many good decks. Always had something cool. -Alan Comer
While Lauer liked his Necrodecks and control decks he has also always had an eye for busted combo decks. Here is the Academy Deck that carried Lauer himself to a Top 8 finish at Pro Tour Rome in 1998.
CMU Academy by Erik Lauer - Top 8 Pro Tour Rome 1998
Pro Tour Rome is looked back on as the most broken Pro Tour format of all-time. While Academy decks were everywhere Lauer's build is widely regarded as the best for a variety of reasons (with only Brian Hacker's less well-known Gusta's Scepter/Yawgmoth's Will build challenging the title).
First of all most Academy players didn't have Vampiric Tutor. Vampiric Tutor opened up so many avenues unavailable to other builds. It provided a consistent Tutor to find your Academy as well as whatever card drawer was appropriate in the situation. Both Scroll Rack and cantrips made the Tutored card available immediately and we (I was blessed to be able to pilot this beast as well) only had to use one copy of cards that most people had to use multiple copies of such as Stroke of Genius and Mind Over Matter. Once you "went off" winning became academic so we again see Lauer's love of absolute minimalist victory conditions. Aside from two counterspellsliterally every other card in CMU Academy makes mana or manipulates the library. This is among the purest combo decks the game has seen succeed at the highest levels and helped pave the way for Storm decks of all formats and half of the Vintage decks to have been created in the past decade.
While Lauer may have built the best broken deck at the most broken PT he also built the most broken deck in GP history the only deck to ever be so good that it prompted an emergency ban (a ban the week after the tournament instead of waiting until the banned/restricted list announcement). Ironically it was neither Lauer nor Buehler (who also top 4ed) who won the event but Kai Budde with High Tide. Still Wizards realized just how massive a breakdown of the game that Lauer had discovered and actually banned Memory Jar the very next week.
Broken Jar by Erik Lauer; 4th Grand Prix Vienna 1999 Extended
This deck is the culmination of all of the worst mistakes WotC had made in Saga and Legacy carried out to the greatest degree. It was the actual nightmare scenario come to life where the game just ends on the first turn every game. All you would do is make mana and draw cards cycling through your whole deck. You then put down a Defense Grid to ensure you were safe and a single Megrim put your opponent out of his misery. While it is unlikely that Wizards will ever mess up this big again there is much to be learned by studying this deck and asking ourselves if we are taking our ideas to the extreme. Magic is a game of extremes and so often if doing something to an 8 is good a 9 would be even better. When we lay out our latest brew we should ask ourselves: "What does this deck do? How could it do that to an even greater degree?"
We haven't even touched on Tap-Out Blue (which Lauer basically invented and Flores used as the foundation for his Jushi Blue and Critical Mass decks) which actually even involves Thought Lash. I couldn't find a list in time for this article but one of the coolest Lauer decks ever was a 150-card (or so) Thought Lash deck. It was Mono-U and featured tons of library manipulation fliers and randomly good blue spells. It also featured Thought Lash which at the time was game over for most aggro decks (which were most of the format). Normally Thought Lash's cumulative upkeep would prohibit it from seeing serious play but Lauer's build was the original Battle of the Wits deck before Battle of the Wits!
3. Tsuyoshi Fujita
Fujita is probably the deckbuilder on this list that readers will be least familiar with despite his being one of the best and most influential. This is basically just a product him being Japanese and from before many readers' times. Still on the Pro Circuit his reputation goes without saying and was the first Japanese player inducted into the Hall of Fame. So often I will hear people discussing great deckbuilders but when they come to Japan they just say "And whoever builds the Japanese decks." As we discussed yesterday Saito is among the best. Katsuhiro Mori Itaru Ishida Akira Asahara and Shouta Yasooka all make the top 25 list (which will be revealed tomorrow!). Kenji Tsumura Masashi Oiso Tsuyoshi Ikeda and Shuuhei Nakamura are among Japan's greatest. Every single one of these players will tell you the same thing. Fujita is the original Japanese Magic Superstar and their greatest deckbuilder. If a Japanese list is dominating and no one knows where it is from there is a very good chance it came from Fujita.
Japanese leader Tsuyoshi is known as a great deckbuilder and of course it is true but I want to say that it is not talent just effort. When he was a pro player he was always playing Magic all day long. He could guess some matchup results without testing because he is good. Though he has never done that and he always tries to figure it out with playing.
When I ask him “How to get better deckbuilding skill?” His answer is: “Just playing; data is not lying to you.” He is the best deckbuilder and he is also the hardest worker. -Kenji Tsumura
Tsuyoshi is best known for his aggressive decks but he is actually an extremely versatile deckbuilder who has achieved major success with just about every archetype (and versions of his own design).
This is the U/B Control list that Fujita eventually reached the finals of Pro Tour Tokyo 2001 with (before dropping to Zvi's The Solution). This deck and tournament were particularly important as it was the first time a Japanese player had reached the Top 8 of a Pro Tour! That's right; just ten years ago Japan was completely off the radar not even considered among the top 5 countries in the world for Magic. With this deck Fujita made history and began the Japanese revolution that would go on to dominate Magic between 2005 and 2009.
U/B Control by Tsuyoshi Fujita; 2nd Pro Tour–Tokyo 2001 Invasion Block Constructed
Card advantage disruption control this deck is a great example of how to make a control deck in a format that doesn't appear to lend itself to one. Sometimes you don't have access to all the tools you would need to truly take control of a game. In situations like that sometimes just doing powerful and efficient things is the best plan. Other times you just drop a Juzam Djinn (Phyrexian Scuta) and start cracking skulls!
Tsuyoshi Fujita – Fujita is on this list simply because he's so good at building aggressive decks. His decks always seem so simple but you can tell there's a lot of thought behind every card choice. -Osyp Lebedowicz
Fujita has done well with so many different decks ranging from RDW to Counter-Sliver to Astral Slide and more picking which Fujita decks to feature is a bit tricky. Here is one of the most important as it was Fujita who popularized the addition of Patriarch's Bidding in Goblins.
Goblin Bidding by Tsuyoshi Fujita; 1st Grand Prix–Bangkok 2003 Standard
- 1 Gempalm Incinerator
- 4 Goblin Matron
- 4 Goblin Piledriver
- 3 Goblin Sharpshooter
- 4 Goblin Sledder
- 4 Goblin Warchief
- 2 Siege-Gang Commander
- 4 Skirk Prospector
- 4 Sparksmith
While this deck may appear simple on the surface you have to remember the genius that goes along with thinking of adding Patriarch's Bidding in the first place!
I think Fujita was innovative and daring. I liked that he really pushed the whole fetchland into duals mechanic in his Boros deck as soon as the Ravnica lands were released and now it's pretty much standard. -Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa
Another of Fujita's most influential beatdown decks was his Boros deck that pioneered the concept of playing more fetchlands than fetch-able lands.
Nowadays it is easy to take for granted that you don't need ten land to fetch to play ten fetchlands (after all when do you need ten land in play with this deck?). Still until someone thinks of it for the first time it is as though it doesn't even exist. Fujita is not just a tuner of aggro decks but a designer of new ones in formats where they don't yet exist. To master even a single discipline (such as Wafo-Tapa with control) is quite an accomplishment. Fujita may be considered an absolute master of beatdown but he is also among the game's best in other disciplines. Additionally he was an idea man that blazed bold new trails with choices that most would consider "crazy" (until he demonstrates their effectiveness and they become the status quo).
Tsuyoshi Fujita took the reins of greatest deck designer in the world following Nassif and probably the greatest beatdown / burn deck designer of all time. With the same tools available to everyone else Fujita could make a Red combo deck that was faster than contemporary Blue counterparts and Red beatdown decks that were simply 40% more efficient than anyone else's in the room. Fujita was Comer-esque in his willingness to play what more conservative players considered "too little" land often looking to a long view of "I lose this matchup if I don't get lucky anyway" which is kind of awesome if you think about it. -Michael Flores
What about combo decks? Fujita has made some sweet ones! He is not slave to original decks and has succeeded with such boring fare as NecroDonate but he has also designed some crazy combo decks that would make Alan Comer blush. Here is one of the most fun:
That's right; this isn't just a notebook sketch. Fujita actually Top 8ed that Grand Prix with this beauty! To say that no one was expecting this Sneak Attack would be an understatement. This was among the first if not the first All-In Red decks making use of Red Rituals in a way that no one had previously (but that now everyone uses). The use of Blazing Shoal Through the Breach and Sneak Attack provide a variety of ways to take advantage of the plethora of Dragons in Fujita's deck though sometimes he would just Ritual them out and bash.
This list is a perfect example of the rewards that can come from letting go of the fear that our ideas are stupid. Does this idea look stupid? Keep in mind this is the fully tuned version. Just imagine how awful the first draft must have been! It would be easy for Fujita to get discouraged especially if he was surrounded by negative people but fortunately he knew better and focused on positive energy. Not every idea is brilliant and frankly most won't work out.
However the people who go around speaking ill of every new card every combo and every idea—they are not going to be the ones people remember tomorrow. There are a lot of truly great Magic players and for a lot of reasons but people generally forget how quickly tournament accomplishments are forgotten. Ideas last much longer and can have a much greater impact even if most people don't realize who had the idea in the first place. It isn't about getting the credit for those ideas; it is about making the game a better and more interesting place as a result of them.
To the great benefit of the Magic community Fujita has returned to the Pro Tour scene and in a big way. Finishing 5th at the most recent Pro Tour in Nagoya here is Fujita's Four-Color Tezzeret deck:
A man after my own heart! When there are more different types of threats than you can possibly react to the ideal solution often involves taking a more proactive role (what is your answer to X? I kill my opponent so I don't have to worry about it). Additionally control decks with a lot of card draw often take advantage of two- and three-of cards far more frequently. Having the right kind of options is crucial and if you need a lot of different types of solutions then you can't just play four of each of them. Fujita didn't have access to nice things like Preordain so he has to rely on the brute force of Tezzeret and Consecrated Sphinx to draw him enough cards to find the answers that he needs.
Another feature we can glean from Fujita's list is the use of different types of effects that do similar things but overlap in different ways. For instance Gremlin Mine Galvanic Blast Go for the Throat and Ratchet Bomb are all cheap removal spells but they all have different specific applications. Sometimes they will be interchangeable but having the variety means you are less likely to get caught with all Go for the Throats against Tempered Steel or Gremlin Mines against Puresteel Paladin.
With a mana base I can truly appreciate we are reminded that sometimes you really can "be greedy." We have seen two- and three-color mana-bases for so long many players forget that you don't actually need Reflecting Pool and Vivid Creek level mana-fixing to play four or more colors. There is a cost but sometimes it rewards you enough to be worth it.
If you are serious about studying the craft of deckbuilding Lauer and Fujita are two of the most important to learn from. I cannot recommend enough looking at their work and then looking at the context. I realize it can be hard to fully appreciate all of these lists without being familiar with the metagame of the era but with a little further research you can uncover the sorts of things others were doing in these time periods. Just as Citizen Kane doesn't seem all that impressive by today's standards so too do many of these decks. However like Citizen Kane many of these decks use techniques that were invented specifically for them but have gone on to become industry standard.
Yesterday it was asked who finished tied for 12th (after Hall of Famer Ben Rubin at 11th). The answer?
Gerry Thompson and Guillaume Wafo-Tapa!
Long-time readers of this column will undoubtedly be well aware of my affinity for the deckbuilding prowess of both of these men but further study is available by looking at my article archives and searching their names. It will be a minute but Wafo will be back. His love for the game is without bounds. As for Gerry I hear he has been doing all right lately...
Tomorrow we come to the exciting conclusion of The 10 Best Deckbuilders of All-Time! Who will they be? In addition to studying two of the game's most prolific deckbuilders and some of their best decks we will also take a look at the entire top 25 list as selected by the panel. Thanks for joining me on this travel through the game's history! See you tomorrow!